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Volume 20 No. 46

Leagues and Governing Bodies

After months of debate, the NBA is moving closer to a policy that would allow teams to sell jersey sponsorships.

Under consideration is a plan for teams to sell advertising on a patch located on the front left chest area of the jersey, sources said.

The league tested a 2.5-inch by 2.5-inch patch with league marks on uniforms during the NBA Finals.
During the team presidents meeting last week in Las Vegas, talk centered on a plan calling for teams to sell a logo patch sized at roughly 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches. The patch was tested during the NBA Finals, when both the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder wore a league-branded patch on their uniforms during the games.

Team executives were shown video of the uniforms at the meetings, but no final decisions were made.

The earliest that jersey advertising could appear on NBA uniforms is at the start of 2013-14 season, as league officials take a cautious approach, but there is a push among proponents of jersey advertising to get an agreement in place as soon as possible to allow teams ample time to make deals.

Another key issue under discussion is whether teams should be allowed to sell the jersey sponsorships as local inventory as opposed to there being a leaguewide deal, though some of the league’s larger sponsor categories likely would be protected. The league would have to approve all deals, and there also is talk of adding a still-to-be-determined price floor to the deals to protect the value of the inventory.

Teams would not be able to sell different logos for home and away uniforms, and the jersey sponsorships would likely be multiyear, highly integrated agreements to drive the value of the deals.

NBA owners must still vote to approve the effort, but the idea of jersey advertising has been gaining traction within the league since league officials began studying the strategy in earnest over the past six months.

“We’re excited to work with our partners to integrate them into the very fabric of the NBA and believe this jersey platform will be a significant business-building opportunity,” said Tom Hunt, senior vice president of corporate partnerships for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Washington Wizards.

If adopted, the NBA would be the first of the four major pro leagues to accept non-endemic advertising on uniforms.

“Being first is hard; following is relatively easy,” said former NBA marketer David Grant, who’s now a principal at agency Team Epic. “Once this happens, other rights holders will watch the fan criticism — and there will be criticism — and then react. When it dies down, the other leagues will jump in.”

These nights, Don Garber sleeps more peacefully. “A lot better than I had in the past,” he said.

Garber’s relaxed demeanor during a recent conversation in his New York office was a bit of a surprise, considering the timing. The AT&T MLS All-Star Game at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., on Wednesday approached, and the league-touted Summer of Soccer, a schedule of 77 matches over 29 days, was in full swing.

But Garber, now in his 13th year as MLS commissioner, does not fret as much as in years past. Some of the reasons for that can be seen by considering MLS’s standing now compared with 10 years ago, when the league’s Soccer United Marketing group was just getting its start.

In 2002, MLS had 10 franchises run by a total of three ownership groups. This year, MLS has 19 franchises and 17 ownership groups. Ten years ago, there was only one soccer-specific stadium in the league. Today, there are 14.

Television ratings are up, as well. On ESPN/ESPN2, MLS has seen a 12 percent increase from last year, to 345,000 viewers on average — a best-ever average to date for the networks for the league. And after averaging 68,000 viewers a year ago on former partner Fox Soccer, MLS is up 62 percent to 110,000 viewers this season on the more widely distributed NBC Sports Network.

The league also is trending up at the gate, with its average per-game attendance on pace to surpass the record set in 2011.

Considering that number on a global stage parallels much of MLS’s overall standing: While MLS is ahead of top leagues in France and China, there’s still clear room for growth.

Garber, 54, refuses to spin his league’s popularity in comparison to the global powers. He embraces the position of underdog and his unofficial role as the U.S. ambassador for soccer. He points to the Summer of Soccer campaign: Between July 18 and Aug. 15, 45 regular-season MLS games and 32 matches featuring international clubs will be played, including games at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

Garber is pushing MLS to become one of the world’s top soccer leagues by 2022.
Photo by: ANDY MEAD / MLS
“The goal has never been just to sell Major League Soccer,” Garber said, “but soccer itself in North America.”

As Garber discussed, work remains to reach his goal of MLS being one of the world’s top soccer leagues in 2022.

What’s your reaction when a big moment happens for EPL, like the last day of this past regular season with all the fanfare surrounding Manchester City and Manchester United? It got a lot of attention in the U.S.

GARBER: Anything happening in the sport of soccer that creates special moments, whether it’s with us or any of the other leagues or federations, is a positive for Major League Soccer. We’re committed to growing the popularity of the game and our teams every day. Euro Cup and World Cup are only every four years; we’re here every day. I’m absolutely convinced that anything that grows the sport benefits MLS.

Is converting soccer fans to MLS fans still one of the league’s biggest challenges?

GARBER: Without a doubt it continues to be one of our key strategic items. We have made progress there. We made a deeper commitment when we hired [former NFL marketer] Howard Handler as CMO and gave him the resources to hire a staff on the analytics, research and brand-marketing side. We have to tell the story that MLS is a league on the rise, with great players and beautiful facilities.

What about when a franchise has a bump in the road, like the Montreal Impact just did when it moved into its new stadium and realized it had to lower its ticket prices? Does the MLS office get involved?

GARBER: We are actively involved as support for our franchises, but we didn’t have to in the case with Montreal. The most successful businesspeople take big, bold risks and then, if they are wrong about a decision, make changes and not worry about the perception of the mistake. Montreal has been incredibly successful; the Impact is second in the league in attendance. They scaled their building a bit wrong when they moved in. Rather than hide behind a decision that needed to be changed, [owner] Joey Saputo sat back and said, “I’m going to change it.” … I’ve got no concerns about Montreal at all.

You mentioned telling the MLS story. Like all leagues, you have your own media to do some of that storytelling, but would you agree that day-to-day coverage of teams is still lacking in many markets?

GARBER: Part of the life of a soccer fan is that you never believe the general sports market cares enough about soccer. I believe that’s changed dramatically over the last few years. Young people growing up with the game, and who are exposed to media in the global context, get soccer. Those people are growing up, getting jobs, working in the media and corporate America, and they’re helping to expand the influence of the sport culturally. I think that’s translating to the media — perhaps not in New York, where you have 11 teams to compete with. As the traditional media moves to the digital world, there’s more soccer coverage via the Internet. That’s OK, because we know our fans are often going first to a variety of blogs and websites to get their soccer news.

Viewership is up significantly from a year ago, but are you frustrated that the ratings on NBC Sports Network and ESPN for MLS are still low?

GARBER: Look, I will never position that MLS — even with some recent success — is done. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. We remain a league on the rise, an emerging league in this country. As long as we continue to move in the right direction, we will be fine. The worst thing that could ever happen to us is that we think we’ve cracked the code and all of a sudden soccer is going to be competitive with the NFL and MLB. That’s not going to happen in the near term. It doesn’t need to for us to be successful. We just need to grow our attendance and ratings, drive more revenue to our clubs, and have people care about our players and our teams. As long as we’re growing those metrics, we’ll be fine.

Was it a setback for MLS that Fox Soccer, which is not one of your broadcast partners, won the rights to the 2014 FIFA World Cup?

GARBER: Couldn’t be further from the truth. We are committed to the concept that the more people are engaged in soccer, the better it is for MLS. We have a close relationship with Fox. They are doing a fantastic job with the Premier League, and I’m sure they’ll do a terrific job with the World Cup. [Fox Sports Chairman] David Hill is one of the industry’s most visionary pioneers. To have a guy like that say, “Soccer is good for me, and I’m going to bid a massive amount of money for the World Cup” is incredibly positive news. What could possibly be bad about that?

Who are your most trusted advisers in the industry?

GARBER: [MLS President] Mark Abbott remains a vital consigliere to me and we spend a great deal of time together, talking about the league and the challenges we face. I also have close relationships with our owners. I’ve got a great executive committee and speak regularly with them, whether it’s Robert Kraft or Tim Leiweke or Joe Roth or Larry Tanenbaum of MLSE.

You set a goal of making MLS one of global soccer’s top leagues by 2022. Why 2022, and do you feel you’re on schedule?

GARBER: It was part of our bid in 2010 for the World Cup in 2022. ... We had a great committee with Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Bob Iger, Henry Kissinger — no shortage of visionaries to help in that bid. We stated our goal was to have MLS be one of the world’s top leagues by 2022, but we lost the bid.

We thought, “OK, now what?” What we decided was, rather than lick our wounds, let’s pop right back up and reaffirm our goal. We want to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world within 10 years. We will do that by continuing to improve our quality of play, the passion of our fans, the relevance of our teams in their markets, and the value of our enterprise. We believe we can achieve it.

SportsBusiness Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp contributed to this report.

NASCAR is restructuring its sponsorship sales and servicing division by dissolving its automotive group and spreading the group’s responsibilities and staff across four new divisions.

The move comes 14 months after NASCAR elevated Jim O’Connell to chief sales officer and give him oversight of NASCAR’s Charlotte-based licensing division and automotive group, which managed the sport’s contingency program and auto partners Toyota, GM, Ford, Dodge, Exide Batteries, McLaren Electronic Systems and others.

O’Connell thought it would be more efficient to have the automotive group spread across three of NASCAR Properties’ four divisions: partnership marketing, marketing platforms, business development and licensing.

Partnership marketing, which will be run by New York-based NASCAR Vice President Norris Scott, will oversee service and renewal of auto partners, as well as the sport’s traditional sponsors such as Gillette, Mars and Office Depot.

Marketing platforms, a new group that will be overseen by New York-based Matt Shulman, who was promoted to managing director, will work to develop new assets for existing and new sponsors and add the expertise of Charlotte-based Liz Schlosser, currently a senior specialist for licensing, and Dave Kobuszewski, director of marketing, NASCAR Automotive Group.

Business development, which will be overseen by managing director Sean Downes, will add Todd Armstrong, NASCAR Automotive Group managing director, to its team and take over sales for the automotive category and NASCAR’s contingency program.

Outside of the auto responsibilities, NASCAR’s vice president of licensing and consumer products, Blake Davidson, will continue to oversee that group from Charlotte.

“By doing this, we’re creating more value for our current partners and giving new companies more opportunities to come into the sport,” O’Connell said.

The restructuring is NASCAR’s fourth in two years. Since August 2010, the sanctioning body has reorganized its communications division, its executive ranks, its broadcast division and now its properties group. In the process, it has seen a number of top executives depart, including Paul Brooks, president of NASCAR Media Group; Jay Abraham, chief operating officer of NASCAR Media Group; and Ramsey Poston, the former managing director of corporate communications.

As part of the NASCAR Properties changes, the sanctioning body is letting go of three of more than 70 employees in the group.

“Any time you have a reorganization and are creating efficiencies, there’s an opportunity to staff more appropriately,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell said the NASCAR Properties group is in “good discussions” with potential sponsors in traditional, green and technology categories.

This week, eight teams will square off in a stadium in the capital city of Sri Lanka, playing American football in the first of seven quartets of games, culminating in a championship game on Aug. 28.

The fledgling league operating the games will film them, package the production for TV, and send it to Indian cable giant Ten Sports to televise to the subcontinent by September.

Thus will begin the first American football league in India, a country with no foundation for the sport but a cultural passion for many things American. One of Ten Sport’s top-rated regular programs, for example, is WWE programming.

Retired quarterback Kurt Warner is among those who have invested in the Elite Football League of India.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
“We are introducing America’s top sport to 1.8 billion people,” said Richard Whelan, chief executive of the Elite Football League of India (EFLI) and whose job it is to convince a legion of skeptics that the league can succeed.

Some big names have bought in, including Ron Jaworski, Kurt Warner and Mark Wahlberg. Warner invested $1 million of the $8.5 million in first-year startup costs.

The model could not be more different, and foreign, to a Western audience. The games are not played in the teams’ home cities, even though the names of the clubs include the Bangalore Warhawks, the Delhi Defenders and the Mumbai Gladiators. Plans call for at least the first two seasons to be tape delayed, with the first games likely shown after the season ends.

Questioned about how the lack of a vibrant local stadium crowd and fan base would affect the production, Whelan pointed out that there would be local Sri Lankans in attendance at the multipurpose stadium currently used mostly for cricket. The facility, which will hold all of the first season’s games, holds 15,000.

His larger point is that in India, the audience is the whole country — not a few thousand people in a stadium. The second season of the popular Indian Premier League of cricket, for example, was staged in South Africa.

So can EFLI, which has been training players since last year, succeed? India not only has no football background, but it has little background with organized team sports leagues of any kind.

“Sports interest in India is so skewed towards cricket that even familiar sports find it difficult to get an audience,” said Akshay Sawai, sports editor of Open magazine, an Indian current affairs publication. “Making an impact will be even tougher for an unfamiliar sport like American football. Also, when things aren’t really part of your culture, it is that much harder for them to get embraced by the locals.”

Sawai agreed with Whelan that Ten Sports, in 90 million Indian homes, is a big plus. And with little history of being able to earn a livelihood in sports, Sawai said, Indians might look to play football if they thought EFLI provided a realistic chance of earning a living.

League founder Sunday Zeller got the idea after visiting slums in economically developing countries. Married to Whelan, who had been working in India since 2004, her idea was that football would be a good outlet for boys.

One intriguing aspect to the league is that one team is from Pakistan, India’s bitter rival. This plays into what Whelan calls the philanthropic mission of the league: to provide opportunity and — to use the league’s own terms — to spread love.

As Zeller wrote in her mission statement: “India’s adoption of the Elite Football League of India will draw worldwide attention to the unifying power of love.”

With the Professional Bowlers Association looking to adopt more of a team-oriented, motorsports model of competition, Shamrock Sports and Entertainment, an agency founded by former NASCAR marketer Brian Corcoran, has been named the PBA’s new sales and marketing agency.

The PBA has revamped its model to include a team competition.
Photo by: PBA
Geoff Reiss, who joined the PBA as vice chairman in March 2011 and was named CEO last November, described the new model of competition as one in which different teams would compete, similar to NASCAR, and those team competitions would share the stage with the traditional, individual bowling competition. Each team would be backed by an individual sponsor and would feature one top-tier “franchise bowler.” Reiss added that the amount of branding and product integration will likely exceed NASCAR’s.

“Our value proposition for non-endemic sponsors has been as just another media buy,” Reiss said. “No sports league can hope to be successful without a sponsorship offering that cuts across media, produces for a lot of activation and helps build more of a crossover audience.”

The “team bowling” packages are just getting to market, Reiss said. He hopes to have six to eight of the team competitions mixed with individual competitions, with the first one starting in January.

The PBA is in the last year of its TV deal with ESPN, and Reiss is looking to add some buzz to bowling, cognizant of the changes in the TV sports rights landscape added by the development of NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network.
Van Wagner Sports was the last agency of record for the PBA.